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Hamed Karzai, the Afghan president, met the US secretary of state, John Kerry, last week in Kabul. Mr Karzai is in Doha today on a state visit. EPA
Hamed Karzai, the Afghan president, met the US secretary of state, John Kerry, last week in Kabul. Mr Karzai is in Doha today on a state visit.  EPA

Karzai heads to Qatar in new talks for Taliban Doha office

At least two senior Taliban figures are in Doha, although a Taliban spokesman rules out any direct talks with the Afghan president.

The Afghan president Hamid Karzai is in Qatar today to discuss the opening of a Taliban office in Doha.

The two-day state visit will be the first high-level talks between the Afghan and Qatari leaders since plans for a Taliban office were announced about a year ago.

"We will discuss the peace process, of course, and the opening of an office for the Taliban in Qatar," the presidential spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said before Mr Karzai left Kabul for Doha yesterday with senior members of his government.

At least two senior Taliban figures are already in Doha, although a Taliban spokesman ruled out any direct talks with the Afghan president.

Nevertheless, Mr Karzai's visit could break the diplomatic deadlock that has stalled the office's official opening. His government had previously opposed a Taliban office outside Afghanistan, fearing that Kabul could be excluded from a final settlement.

The Afghan government reiterated yesterday that negotiations would have to work through official channels, regardless of where the talks took place.

"If we want to have talks to bring peace to Afghanistan, the main side must be the Afghan government's representatives - the High Peace Council, which has members from all the country's ethnic and political backgrounds," Mr Faizi said.

If plans for a political office proceed, it could open a new phase in American attempts to end the decade-long conflict in Afghanistan. The US plans to withdraw its troops by 2014 and hopes a negotiated settlement could ease the transition process.

Mr Karzai's visit was welcomed by Washington, which has not had direct contact with the Taliban for more than a year after negotiations about a prisoner exchange broke down in March 2012.

"We have always said that reconciliation will be a complicated, challenging process should talks begin. But President Obama and President Karzai have agreed that Afghan-led reconciliation is the surest way to end violence and ensure the lasting stability of Afghanistan and the region," a US state department official said.

"We think an office in Doha is the best and most effective way to advance the process."

It is not yet clear how the Taliban office will operate or where it will be. But Mr Faizi warned yesterday that its function should be strictly limited.

"It can only be an address where the armed opposition sit and talk to the Afghanistan government," he said.

The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the opening of any office was "a matter between the Taliban and the Qatar government".

"If Karzai visits, it is not our concern. Our representatives who are already in Qatar won't see or talk to him."

Leveraging its considerable financial and diplomatic weight, Qatar has a history of recent successes in brokering negotiations, which it did in Darfur, Sudan and Lebanon.

Doha did not release any official statement on Mr Karzai's visit, but the prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, said in January that stability in Afghanistan would depend on having "a political process in place" when American troops leave in 2014.

"Our aim is to help our Afghan brothers and find a solution accepted by all, or most, parties," he said.

The Karzai government is struggling to assert its authority over security matters, as Afghan troops try to assume control of much of the country before most of the Nato-led foreign coalition forces leave in December 2014.

Underlining tensions between Kabul and the foreign troops, US special operations forces yesterday withdrew from a district of Wardak province at the insistence of Mr Karzai after allegations that Afghan forces there had committed human-rights abuses on US orders.

Mr Karzai had originally demanded the US forces pull out from the entire province, a gateway and staging area for Taliban and other militants for attacks on Kabul, but he scaled down his demands to just Nirkh district after negotiations with US officials.

Also yesterday, Afghan officials said a Nato helicopter strike killed two children in southern Afghanistan.

The operation close to Ghazni city was conducted after complaints of a Taliban post targeting traffic convoys in the area.

President Karzai recently banned Afghan forces from requesting foreign air support.

Civilian casualties mostly caused by air strikes have been one of the most sensitive issues in relations between Mr Karzai and the Nato-led military.

edickinson@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press

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